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Innovation Office touts permitting, recycling progress with tight budget looming

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Innovation Office continues to appeal both to Austin’s tech community and departments throughout local government as it moves forward with work to improve service for the city’s much-maligned permitting process for residents and business people.

A July rollout of initial improvements to the permitting process comes with a drastic overhaul of the digital presence for the Austin Convention Center, efforts to improve participation in the recycling program for Austin Resource Recovery and improvements to the ATX Floods website, all of which will be helpful in attracting partnerships with other city departments looking to improve their offerings.

Those collaborations could be crucial in the coming budget year, since the city has forecast a tighter budget than initially expected, thanks to slowing economic growth locally. Because partner departments fund the dozen-plus limited engagement fellows assigned to specific projects, building enthusiasm for the Innovation Office’s work will be important to expanding its scope.

“We go where the people in departments are opting in, but if we’re all facing constraints, then how do we weight the trade-offs of what we’re trying to do versus where there’s funding and interest?” said Kerry O’Connor, the city’s chief innovation officer and head of the Innovation Office. “The real test is what are we able to do when there’s more pressure on everyone in terms of resources. There’s lots of pressure to fix all of the things we can, but getting teams together with departments working on projects together has been our focus.”

O’Connor and Ben Guhin, the office’s senior adviser for design and technology, made a stop at Capital Factory on Monday for a “lunch and learn” session intended to show the entrepreneurs and talented tech workers there what the office was working on.

While the session, presented by the Austin Tech Alliance, was focused on the benefits of creating government systems that are accessible to all residents, it also served as a primer for newcomers in what the office has been working on for the past year.

“Since the (Austin Tech Alliance) is involved in civic issues, it’s a chance to let their members know we want their community to come in and help us solve different issues that appeal to them,” O’Connor said. “If there’s a startup that hasn’t thought about accessibility in what they offer, we want to change that and let them know that we want to work with the design and tech world.”

Guhin said the office is starting small with its efforts to improve the permitting process in the city, which took a “huge” amount of person hours to study and map in order to begin understanding all the departments and moving parts involved. He said simply making the information available online before applicants venture to the One Texas Center complex for in-person interactions will reduce frustration and eventually speed up a process that is notoriously long.

“Even solving the question of, how can we improve people’s understanding of what they need to come in with, that’s directly relatable to the web as a resource and figuring out how we can sync up all those channels,” he said. “We’re trying to cut down on people getting different answers based on who it is they’re talking to.”

Dave Edmonson, executive director of Austin Tech Alliance, said the appeal of the Innovation Office lies in solving widespread civic problems, which can serve as a calling card for young companies or workers trying to set themselves apart to investors and employers.

“There’s a plethora of nonprofits out there who are working on a shoestring budget and are tech knowledge deficient, while in the tech sector there’s lots of folks who want to give back but might not know what opportunities are available,” he said. “What Ben and Kerry are doing to look at entrenched problems is exciting to people from the tech sector, especially if it matches up with the work and the world they come from.”

Photo by Argash made available through a Creative Commons license.

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